By DJ Dunson March 21, 2014, 12:16 PM EST
Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State program couldn’t be farther from North Carolina Central. Distance-wise, that's about a 17-hour drive. Culturally, Ames, Iowa and Durham, North Carolina are worlds apart which will make for an interesting mix of fans on Friday night in San Antonio. However, the gravitational pull of this tournament has also bridged the interstellar gap between the so-called mid-majors and the astronomical masses containing the equity conference programs. Not even the No. 1 team in the nation coasted to victory.
Four years ago, former NC Central player and 1996 CIAA Player of the Year Levelle Moton gripped the reins of his alma mater’s basketball program with the same caution of a cook grabbing a bowl of hot grease. The program was in its infancy on the Division I level and Moton was a coaching novice in terms of experience. They’d won seven games in the two seasons prior when Moton was an assistant. This could have been the pinnacle, the nadir, beginning and the end of his collegiate head coaching career all at once.
His Friday night coaching counterpart’s name is on the lips of athletic directors and NBA general managers. Moton isn’t a marquee name on the scene yet, but his name and number have been on the speed dial for some of the top players in the NBA, college and prep hoops from his days hustlin’ with Jerry Stackhouse.
While most of the Class of 2009 recruits had already settled down with commitments to top-25 programs, a lean, heady young point guard with springs in his calves planned a recruiting trip to North Carolina Central.
"I want to find out what a historically black school has to offer," John Wall announced in late April 2009. "This is a visit to find out some things."
Wall ultimately opted against the Tobacco Road hoops triangle’s HBCU to dig in with John Calipari’s first freshman foster home class at Kentucky but it was representative of the type of cache NC Central’s new head coach provided. At the time, NC Central was in the midst of completing their five-year transition from Division I, seeking admission into the MEAC and was breaking in a 35-year-old head coach. Five years later, and Wall may have given it more thought.
Two years later, McDonalds All-American Rodney Purvis re-opened his commitment and included NC Central amongst a litany of college basketball’s blue blood programs.
New York City, Seattle and Washington D.C. are commonly identified as hotspots on the hoops recruiting roadmap, but North Carolina is a Shangri-la of blossoming basketball talent. Moton is making waves and wading out into the deep end. Instead of getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle between NC State, Duke and North Carolina, Moton has created his own basketball Pleasure Island a few miles from Krzyzewskiville.
What’s remarkable about college basketball are those coaches who display a knack for delivering fast-acting elixirs to comatose programs. Moton, whose most extensive head coaching experience was as John Wall’s middle school coach and at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, was the right button for NC Central to push.
Year one was a rough patch that included seven wins. In his second season, Moton doubled the previous season’s win total when he won 15 games.
“People were happy that we were getting our head beat in because we chose to move into Division I” Moton said about the hostile attitude towards NC Central from MEAC schools stemming from resentment harbored by MEAC programs who observed Central’s dominance in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
NC Central's real progress occurred during a 22-win season in which he channeled his inner-John Thompson and proclaimed NC Central as the “Black Duke”.
“We have an analogy that we use. It’s like we’re building a $10 million mansion.” Moton gleamed in early February. “The way to do that is to just lay one brick. If you do that over the course of time, you’ll look up and you’ll have a mansion.”
Moton’s self-assuredness seems premature, but there was reason for his grandiose remarks. NC Central’s basketball history extends back to the 40’s when they competed in an illegal, racially integrated contest that came to be known as The Secret Game against Duke University’s all-white team. The Eagles trounced Duke 88-44 and the head coach behind the bench was a young John McClendon.
The 1989 Eagles led the nation in scoring defense, then shattered the Division II national championship game record during a 27-point rout of NC Central. Moton’s architectural vision of a unique hoops powerhouse is rounding into form.
This season began with expectations hovering in the clouds. In early December, NCAA Tournament aspirations morphed into discussions of this being one of the MEAC’s best teams ever after they went down the road and defeated NC State’s McDonalds All-American lineup in overtime.
It was the third MEAC upset of an ACC program including Coppin State’s Dec. 1989 upset of Maryland which was preceded by Maryland star feigning ignorance to the existence of a men’s basketball team at Coppin State. The second MEAC slaying of an ACC giant occurred in UNC’s season opener against a Hampton squad that coldcocked Iowa State eight months earlier. However, the NC State victory wasn’t the biggest win in conference history.
Three 15 seeds from the MEAC have beaten No. 2 seeds including Coppin State’s ’97 upset of South Carolina and North Folk State’s improbable run to the 2012 Sweet 16. Auspiciously enough, it’s also been 13 years since second-seeded Iowa State was toppled by Hampton in the NCAA tournament.
The flipside to Iowa State’s free-flowing NBA style, matchup nightmare on offense is a bottom 100 defense which allows 73 points a game.
That bodes well for MEAC Player of the Year Jeremy Ingram and point guard Emanuel "Poobie" Chapman. Chapman ranks eighth nationally in assists thanks in part to having Ingram on the receiving end of his passes. The Eagles senior two-guard mollywhopped Wichita State's vaunted defense for 36 points and splashed 27 on Cincinnati.
The Eagles aren’t just discussed in a prism of Norfolk State and Hampton. They’re also in the same conversation of the MEAC’s best teams ever. The 20th ranked Maryland Eastern Shore's 1974 juggernaut, which led the nation in scoring with 97.8 points per game and featured a trio of All-MEAC first teamers is the gold standard. NC Central sweeps the legs from underneath opponents with a crippling defense that ranks eighth in scoring defense (58.8 points) and NO. 2 in field goal percentage defense (37.2 percent) joining Virginia, Arizona and San Diego State as the only two teams ranked Top 10 in those statistical categories.
If guard play and defense are key to NCAA Tournament success, NC Central has cooked up a perfect batch using formula. The Eagles also won’t get shook after scheduling Wichita State for the second season in a row, and included matchups against Cincinnati, Marquette and NC State on their non-conference gauntlet.
Now that North Carolina Central is actually spitting out conference titles, this could be a rare opportunity for the dying breed of HBCU basketball programs to experience a revitalization. A win for Iowa State would accelerate that process. Duke casts quite a shadow in Durham, but Moton’s built a cult of personality for years in North Carolina on the recruiting trail and in the community. That million-dollar home is nearly ready as well. Once he gets an NCAA Tournament win to hang on NC Central's pillars, construction will be finished on Moton Manor.